So it was in East Germany, known in the West as the Sogenannte Deutsche Demokratische Republik, or So‐called German Democratic Republic. What had been the Soviet occupation zone was turned into the usual human utopia, along with the countries of Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, all “liberated” by the Red Army. (Moscow played a much lesser role in Yugoslavia, and quickly withdrew its military since communist partisans had taken control.)
For a time the Soviets and their local apparatchiks ruled East Germany with a light hand. Until 1952, Moscow hoped to prevent West Germany from rearming and joining the Western bloc headed by the United States. Once that moment passed the East German regime headed by Walter Ulbricht, the communist party general secretary, decided it was time to proceed with the “accelerated construction of socialism,” which in common parlance meant oppressing workers and destroying the economy. The local communists also targeted churches and collectivized farms, measures never known for their popularity.
It didn’t take long for people in the (S)DDR to realize that life was not as good as in the West. Among those most concerned about their living standards, naturally, was the working class. Unfortunately for Walter & Co., Germany had a long history of labor activism going back to trade unions and the Social Democratic Party, which was a powerful force even in Wilhelmine Germany.
By June 1953, the communists found themselves under siege. Living standards had declined, as subsidies were cut, prices were hiked, and work “norms,” production levels necessary to receive a promised wage, were increased. All told, East Germans were working harder, being paid less, and spending more. Living standards dropped by about a third.
No wonder East Germans didn’t believe they were living in a workers’ paradise any longer. Discontent burgeoned. The previous year, 182,000 East Germans fled west, alarming the Kremlin, which worried about social stability and survival as the educated, professional class abandoned the workers’ paradise to workers, who didn’t believe the (S)DDR was a paradise.
The USSR could not isolate its “liberated” German zone. The postwar agreement provided for the shared occupation of Berlin; the Western section turned out to be an oasis of liberty within a massive totalitarian world. Many residents from the East worked in West Berlin, which became a portal through which the freedom‐minded could escape (which ultimately led to erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961).
As the East German regime tottered, local apparatchiks looked to “fraternal assistance” in the form of Soviet soldiers and tanks. Even Moscow was uncertain. In June 1953, Joseph Stalin, the “man of steel,” was dead. The collective leadership that succeeded him was spooked, fearing instability in their most important satellite state, and ordered the local party to reverse course on everything but the new norms. (S)DDR officials were demoralized but did so. But workers were energized and demanded that the norms go as well. When the regime refused to surrender on the final point, several thousand people protested on June 12. Three days later workers had the effrontery to officially petition the workers’ paradise for a return to the old norm, but were rebuffed.
On June 16, workers went on strike, something that is not supposed to happen in a workers’ paradise. Then a crowd showed up at the communist party headquarters, demanding to speak to Ulbricht and other top leaders, who unsurprisingly hid in their offices. The Politburo temporized, finally agreeing to make the norm voluntary.
By then, however, workers had recognized their power. Strikes and demonstrations spread the next day. And the demands become political: free elections, civil liberties, and more. Workers in paradise aren’t supposed to require such bourgeois liberties! Yet posters and statues of the usual commie paladins were destroyed and protests spread across the country.